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Steve Bannon and the alt-right: a primer

What is there left to say about the alt-right? Let’s just start with the basics.

Their numbers are hard to quantify, but they have a large social media presence, particularly on Twitter, which they use to harass journalists and conservatives, particularly Jewish ones. They’re fond of internet memes, have their own little shibboleths (such as their tactic of putting parenthesis around the names of Jewish users), and are generally young, white, and male.

They also have a presidential candidate they love, Donald Trump, and a conservative news site of their own: Breitbart, which up until a couple days ago was run by new Trump consigliere Steve Bannon

Bannon’s Breitbart distinguished itself from the rest of the conservative media in two significant ways this cycle. The first was becoming a mouthpiece for Trump while other, older conservative periodicals were declaring war on him. The second was through their embrace of the alt-right, which mainstream conservatives tend to abhor.

Before we get back to that, a little history: The right has always had its kooks and cranks, so movement conservatives devised a policing mechanism in the form of purges, usually spearheaded by William F. Buckley’s National Review. That magazine took on the role of deciding what views and personages were acceptable on the right, and it was largely successful in doing so, in part because of Buckley’s standing as the intellectual leader of the American right.

Then Buckley died in 2008, and there was no one to replace him. (The last real purge in the conservative ranks happened in 2003, when NR exiled Pat Buchanan specifically and the anti-war right more broadly.) That, combined with the many catastrophes of the Bush years, meant that conservative orthodoxy could be more freely challenged, the Republican Party more openly criticized.

As a result, since Bush left office, both the conservative movement and the GOP, two overlapping groups once famed for their internal discipline, became much more chaotic. The Tea Party emerged, which many mainstream conservatives were happy to conclude was driven by debt, deficits, and the expansion of the state, a happy corrective to both Bush’s big-government heresies and Barack Obama’s liberalism.

And with the rise of the Tea Party came Breitbart News, a site founded by the Andrew Breitbart, a prominent conservative activist and journalist. Breitbart, both the man and the site, became the Tea Party’s biggest cheerleaders, and promoted beliefs recognizable to your average GOPer: big government is bad, gun rights are good, defend the Constitution at all costs, etc. It was, in its way, just as orthodox as National Review, and the differences more had to do with style and tone. 

Then, in 2012, Andrew Breitbart died, and into that vacuum he left behind stepped Steve Bannon, a rich guy-turned-conservative propagandist best known for making a fawning documentary of Sarah Palin.

Slowly but surely, Bannon turned Breitbart into not only the most-read conservative web outlet but also the most incendiary one. It was happy to embrace fringe beliefs like birtherism and play footsie with blatantly racist notions of black criminality. It wasn’t interested in looking even faintly objective, instead inventing easily understood “narratives” of crusading conservative heroes and their many victories against the hated left.

Buckleyite movement conservatism had always been tethered away from all that by its desire for “respectability,” the idea that it should be taken seriously by outsiders as a real intellectual force. Bannon’s Breitbart didn’t have such scruples – it was playing directly to its very specific audience – and it would follow that audience wherever it went.

The GOP, meanwhile, was in crisis. Its policies – foreign, economic, and social – had all been broadly rejected by the national electorate. Its discredited orthodoxies, such as democracy promotion abroad and supply-side economics at home, had fewer adherents by the day, and there was no Buckley figure to keep the various factions in line.

The entire conservative project, in other words, was failing. Bannon’s Breitbart adjusted accordingly.

Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy wasn’t taken seriously by mainstream conservatives, in large part because Trump wasn’t a conservative, and only conservatives could win the Republican nomination. Andrew Breitbart himself had dismissed Trump as a charlatan back in 2012. Still, his poll numbers kept rising.

For its part, Bannon’s Breitbart initially seemed to favor Ted Cruz, the firebrand conservative from Texas, going so far to run an “exclusive” look at photos of his family praying before he formally announced. Soon, though, Bannon’s Breitbart realized that Trump-style white identity politics wasn’t a passing fad, that his ideas, unconservative as they were, had real appeal among those supposedly debt-obsessed Tea Partiers that made up the website’s central audience.

Bannon’s Breitbart also realized that there was a large online community that naturally gravitated to Trump, a mix of people who saw themselves as far too radical to be accepted by polite society. Among them, conservative suspicions of diversity, inclusion, feminism, and political correctness had metastasized into something much darker.

This was the alt-right, a collection of racists, pick-up artists, men’s rights activists, and other noxious trolls of the internet. There’s no real dogma or central text to the alt-right, and no Buckley figure, though plenty are interested in taking the mantle. It’s a loose grouping with a few unifying figures, such as Trump and the Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos.

It was the openly-gay Yiannopoulos who became the first real alt-right celebrity, and he parlayed his internet fame into a series of speaking gigs that he called the “Dangerous Faggot” tour. His catchphrase is “feminism is cancer” and he first rose to prominence as part of the GamerGate movement, a thing you’re free to Google. He’s also Breitbart’s tech editor and most prominent columnist.

Yiannopoulos shtick is offending people, generally liberals and progressives. To his admirers, this makes him a hero of free speech (“free speech advocate” being a frequent phrase seen in the online bio of alt-righters). To everyone else, it makes him annoying, and perhaps a little sad.

But the alt-right loves him, and he returns the affection. Last spring, he co-bylined a lengthy defense of their movement on Breitbart’s front page, which sought to portray its adherents as “dangerously bright” little scamps who say awful things for the LOLs.

Offending progressives is something many conservative pundits love to do, in large part because progressives can be easy to offend. Buckey did it, Breitbart did it, and so on. The alt-right’s innovation here, in Yiannopoulos’s telling, is to take that tendency to its logical extreme. Did a Jewish author say something you disagree with? Send him a photoshop of him being sent to Auschwitz! It’s all in good fun, you see.

But it’s also very serious, Yiannopolous and the alt-right will tell you, because the West in under attack and conservatives, locked in the straight-jacket of respectability, won’t do anything about it. The Muslims are coming, and so are the Mexicans. Blacks are out of control in the cities. The feminists are trying to upset gender norms, which is why you can’t get a date. Smart as you are, young white man, you can’t get rich, because of globalists, who “just happen” to be Jews.

This is increasingly the governing ideology of Breitbart, one reflected in its headlines and stories, although it hasn’t gone quite full-bore on the anti-Semitism quite yet. And it is the ideology that’s been encouraged by Steve Bannon, the man Trump has chosen to rescue his failing campaign.

Bannon’s appointment, sure enough, was quickly praised by alt-right stalwarts. “Breitbart has elective affinities with the alt-right,” the white nationalist Richard Spencer told The Daily Beast on Wednesday, “and the alt-right has clearly influenced Breitbart. In this way, Breitbart has acted as a ‘gateway’ to alt-right ideas and writers.”

This is not to say either Trump or Bannon are racist. And I don’t know how many Trump supporters have any clue who or what the “alt-right” is, though I’d suspect the answer is not many. But for anyone wondering what Bannon sees as a winning message, or what directions he’ll push Trump in, it’s worth considering how he’s spent so much of the last year trying to mainstream the alt-right.

And this is, of course, a concern that extends beyond the campaign. National Review is widely seen as having prepared the intellectual architecture for President Reagan. It’s probably now safe to assume that Breitbart would fill a similar role for a President Trump. 

  • Will Rahn

    Will Rahn is a political correspondent and managing director, politics, for CBS News Digital.